Dating back to ancient Greece and China, there have been walls constructed to keep foreigners out and citizens in. Government leaders claim the building of these walls was necessary to secure their borders, especially during times of political change. One cannot deny the walls provided work for its citizens, and many have become landmarks due to their beauty and ingenuity. With the current atmosphere surrounding the border wall in America, one can only wonder what the true function of a wall (if built) will be. Below is a brief look at a few of the most famous walls in history.
What’s interesting is that this “wall” consisted of many walls and fortification systems, built by different dynasties in different parts of China, beginning in the 7th century B.C. The wall initially served to protect against invading nomadic groups from Mongolia along China’s northern border. Several large sections of the wall were eventually joined together by Qin Shi Huang (220–206 B.C.), founder of the Qin Dynasty, and the first Emperor of China. Building and repair of the wall continued during the Han Dynasty not only for protection but also as a border control to collect taxes on goods transported on the Silk Road and to control immigration and emigration. In the 14th century, the Ming Dynasty rebuilt most of the wall using new materials such as bricks and stone. It became a military installation against Mongolia and Manchuria, with 25,000 watchtowers, fortresses and beacon towers, stretching over 5,000 miles. The wall was completed at the great expense of the workers who built it. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands, and possibly up to a million, men died and some were interred in the wall. The preservation of the wall began in 1957 and an estimated 30% of the wall is gone.
After World War II, Germany was divided into four sectors, each controlled by one of the Allied forces (the US, UK, Soviet Union, and France). Likewise, Germany’s capital, Berlin, was also divided into similar, four sectors. The USSR disagreed with the western Allies on how to reconstruct Germany as a self-sufficient, democratic nation. In 1952, Stalin decided to retain control of the Soviet sector by creating a “hard” border, dividing Germany into two nations: the Eastern German Democratic Republic and the Western Federal Republic of Germany. As tensions between East and West Germany grew stronger, so did those between East Berlin and West Berlin. People were able to escape to West Berlin, even after the border between East and West Germany had been closed because the railroad lines crossing Berlin were vital to both sides. Three and a half million people (20% of East Germany’s population) escaped via Berlin’s emigration “loophole.” When railway construction bypassing Berlin was finished in 1961, a roughly constructed wall of barbed wire was built to strengthen the border between East and West Berlin. East German Leader Walter Ulbright put up the barrier overnight, despite telling people a “wall” would not be built. It was reinforced with concrete later that year. Since the city of Berlin was located entirely within East Germany, the Berlin Wall was actually two walls: one that surrounded the entire city, effectively cutting off Berlin from the rest of Germany; the second wall divided the Soviet-controlled sector (“East Berlin”) from the other three sectors still controlled by the US, UK, and France (“West Berlin”). These walls existed purely for ideological purposes, between Capitalism and Communism, and initiated the Cold War. However, the fall of the Polish and Hungarian governments in 1989 triggered a chain reaction. Mass emigration of East German “tourists” to Austria and civil unrest throughout East Germany in 1989, resulted in the fall of the two Berlin Walls as well as the border between East and West Germany.
Rome had numerous city walls built to protect its borders from invaders. The first of these walls was the Servian Wall, also known as the Republican Wall. It was built in the 4th century B.C. after the Gauls sacked Rome, and named for King Servius Tullius. It was strong enough to prevent Hannibal from invading Rome in 211 B.C. The blocks that made up the wall were made of volcanic tufa. The wall was as high as ten meters and was equipped with catapults. Over the centuries, ancient Rome’s population increased to one million, but urban sprawl beyond the wall neutralized its protection. However, Rome became better protected by its expanding armies. When Germanic tribes repeatedly invaded the Roman frontier in the 3rd century A.D., Emperor Aurelian built larger walls (named mura aureliane) in 271 A.D. The Aurelian Walls enclosed all seven hills of Rome, the left bank of the Tiber River, and the Trastevere district totaling 5.3 square miles (13.7 square km). These walls were built out of brick-faced concrete, with towers about every 100 feet. In the 4th century, the height of the walls was doubled to 52 feet (16 m). By 500 A.D., the walls had 383 towers, 18 main gates, 116 latrines (for guards), and 2,066 external windows. The walls remained Rome’s primary defense for 16 centuries. Some of the walls became part of apartments and homes, while others became a monument to ancient Rome. In 1990, the city of Rome opened an archaeological museum dedicated to the history of the walls in Rome: the Museo delle Mura (“museum of the walls”). The museum is located in the Porta San Sebastiano at the beginning of the Appian Way. Seven exhibition halls provide details of building techniques of Rome’s walls. Visitors can also walk alongside one of the best-preserved stretches of the Aurelian Wall. The museum is free of charge.